In a bid to contain a growing crisis of confidence at Canada's busiest public park, the Ontario government has removed four political appointees from the Niagara Parks Commission and replaced them with civil servants until a new board is formed.
The move, announced late Monday by Tourism Minister Michael Chan, follows two years of controversy and a series of revelations from an ongoing Globe and Mail investigation into untendered contracts, cronyism, $400,000 in travel spending by an executive and alleged financial improprieties at the Crown agency.
"We recognize the concerns that have been raised and are taking decisive steps to set the Niagara Parks Commission in a new direction with stronger governance and greater accountability," Mr. Chan said in a prepared statement, adding that the change has been made "so that the agency operates in a manner that is accountable and transparent to Ontarians."
As public guardian of one of the world's most recognizable natural wonders, the 125-year-old commission has faced mounting scrutiny since 2008, when its 10- to 12-member governing board quietly granted an untendered 25-year lease to the Maid of the Mist tour boat operation.
A lone commissioner, Bob Gale, broke ranks and went public with his complaint to Ontario's Integrity Commissioner. This led to two confidential government audits, obtained by The Globe, which raised concerns about opaque governance, lax business practices and an "old boys club" image.
Since then, the Maid lease has been overturned and put to tender, the commission's chairman replaced, its meetings opened to the public and its policies subject to an ongoing overhaul. Meanwhile, a Globe freedom-of-information request found that a senior agency executive, Joel Noden, spent $400,000 on travel and entertainment in three years.
Mr. Noden was fired without cause on Nov. 9, days before details of his expenses were published. He has defended the spending as appropriate and in line with parks policies of the day.
The Globe has also reported that two Liberal MPPs, including a cabinet minister, were told of alleged impropriety at the agency as far back as 2005, and that Mr. Gale told provincial investigators about a suspected forgery by a parks worker more than two years ago. The government has yet to address questions about what it did with the information.
Mr. Gale, whose commission appointment was not renewed after he went public with his concerns, called the removal of four board members "a step that should have been taken a while back, and it's a step in the right direction for the people."
The agency, which spends $77-million a year managing 1,720 hectares of public land, funds its operations from its attractions, gift shops, golf courses and a cut of Maid of the Mist receipts, but it has lost money for four straight years and relies on provincial loans for capital projects.
The four revoked board appointments include that of Archie Katzman, a veteran political bagman first appointed in 1971 and perennially reinstated by governments under all three parties. In January, The Globe reported that Mr. Katzman, a formerly bankrupt St. Catharines businessman, accepted an interest-free mortgage from a close friend who went on to win multimillion-dollar building contracts at Niagara Parks. In addition, Mr. Katzman's two sons sold wine and mobile phone service to the commission.
Commissioners Italia Gilberti, Edward Werner and Fred Louws have also been removed, leaving six appointees remaining: chairwoman Fay Booker, a governance expert Mr. Chan named this year to sharpen the agency's practices; Janice Thomson, a new vice-chair approved by Ms. Booker; and four members drawn from municipal councils in Niagara.
Those six remaining members "and six senior Ontario public servants will operate until a new permanent board is appointed," Mr. Chan said in the statement.
In the meantime, the government will undertake new audits of the agency's travel, meal and hospitality expenses, which escaped scrutiny in previous government probes, "as well as procurement practices," the minister said.
The fate of other senior executives at the agency remains unknown, though Ms. Booker hinted, after Mr. Noden's departure, that further personnel changes were possible.
She was particularly miffed at comments made by the agency's top bureaucrat, general manager John Kernahan, who told The Globe he hadn't signed off on Mr. Noden's travel expenses "in years," despite written policy that gave him that authority.
Mr. Kernahan said that authority had been delegated to another executive who was Mr. Noden's equal in the hierarchy; that executive, in turn, said only Mr. Kernahan had say over directors' expenses.
Mr. Kernahan has not responded to requests for comment.